I hadn't heard about this new thing called "Landscape Urbanism" -- LU --until just a few weeks ago, thanks to a must-read article by Michael Mehaffy here which then led me, somehow, to The Maestro, Andres Duany, who gave a talk last year at the Congress for the New Urbanism titled "The Next Urbanism is not New Urbanism." I'll let you listen to the video here to get Duany's take on Landscape Urbanism and what it is — basically sprawl redux with fancy, Latinate words — while I offer my take on Duany.
Fascinating talk. As always Duany is a fine speaker, as much entertainer as idea-generator: relaxed, witty, blunt at times and always full of the famous Duany self-confidence.
Some of my impressions:
1. I think Duany was entirely too easy on LU. Far too.
I have just read what is supposed to be one of the primary texts of Landscape Urbanism, James Corner's chapter "Terra Fluxus," (in The Landscape Urbanism Reader). The chapter feels like The Sokal Hoax. Not quite that bad — I am not saying that Corner is promoting outright hoax — but is offering some sort of puffed-up pseudo-intellectaulism along the lines of the book Fashionable Nonsense. For example (click to expand):
It's not so much that Corner is wrong that 'cities and infrastructure are just as "ecological as forests and rivers' but simply that that fact is so well-known and obvious and yet presented with a gloss of fancy words. Why not just say it? The obvious? And stop trying to use the fancy words to make the arguments seem "elegantized."
But read Terra Fluxus yourself, here.
I like Corner far better -- in fact I like him -- when he says, with reference to his own gibberish above, he has the grace to say that "No matter how ambitious and far-reaching the above outline practices may be, at the end of the day there will still always be doors, windows, gardens, stream corridors, apples and lattes." I like the sweet, direct simplicity of his words and I wish he'd say more. For example, his experience with The Highline — what has to be a career-making project with all sorts of famous people and great anecdotes, from the competition itself to all the opening-day parties, as well as the genuine and interesting design problems — would make for a good read.
The major thing I notice in Corner (and I assume that he does fairly represent LU thinking) is that so attempts to be intellectual and doesn't use simple words. To me, that is a bad sign.
I was also struck by Duany's remark that LU did fine in the rural areas and suburban areas but fails in settlements bigger than a hamlet. Yet he offered no examples that LU people have done anything significant even in such uninhabited areas — or anywhere. (Sounded to me like Duany was just being nice to open up a useful discussion, which is good. To a point.) Anyone with any suggestions about what LU has produced? What good work the LUers have done?
I had heard that LU guru James Corner claims (or is claimed for him) that Freshkills Park and The Highline are his designs and represent LU work. Well, the former is just barely being built and it seems a bit premature to judge it one way or another. It may yet be brilliant but to what degree iit is novel, and novel along the lines of LU, it doesn't seem clear. Transforming a garbage dump (that's what Freshkills was) or other degraded site into a park is by no means unusual, not even remotely unusual.
As to the The Highline Park, the claim, (if said seriously that Corner did the design,) is misleading. The Highline -- I visited and liked it very much; friends and I spent 3-4 hours sitting there, chatting -- wasn't designed by Corner. The High Line was "designed" by the RR builders, the neighborhood activists and chance — that the line wasn't torn down immediately when it became obsolete until a later generation of urbanists could see its value.
Once the strategic & political decision to save the High Line was made — a design decision, in essence, about how to use the environment — the great work was done; and then Corner was hired to do the tactical work, which no mistake is very nice. Corner had no role in the basic politics (correct me if I have it wrong.) He was hired via a design competition several years after the basic concept — using it as a linear park —was set. Corner didn't even have the role that landscape architect Richard Haag did with Seattle's Gas Works Park, who had the initial insight and inspiration and did a lot of the politiicking, (as there was resistance at first to Haag's brilliant plan.) Corner was simply hired by the client which had already made the decision to use the site as a public park. He may make some claim to designing it at a tactical level. But the big decision was made by others: to save the elevated rail line as a park in the first place.
Fresh Kills Landfill Competition, Field Operations/James Corner Downsview Park Competition, all finalist entries  Parc de la Villette Competition, OMA entry/Rem Koolhaas Schouwburgplein, Rotterdam, West 8/Adriaan Geuze
Mind, I am not saying that self-identified LUers may not and have not done fine work; I suspect they have. I am just trying to follow-up on Duany's (overly graceful?) remark that LU knows what it is doing in very low-intensity areas such as wilderness, rural and parts of suburbia. Where's the beef? And what does LU offer by way of finished work which we can see and which represents LU's new ideas to experience? Help me out.
2. Duany missed the huge and obvious question: where do these LU people live? I am not looking for specific addresses, of course, but what sort of neighborhoods? Are they traditional, walkable? Or do they live in lush suburbs with nary a sidewalk in sight? Even if they live in a detached house, as I do, I would bet that LUers live somewhere near a nice walkable village. Like other advocates of modern, they may like it best for their clients.
3. I wondered if the LU vs NU debate seemed a bit trumped up and more theater — for both — than reality. LU doesn't seem to me to have any genuine intellectual substance. If it comes down to saying, "NU doesn't care enough about cars," then that may well be true. But it's hardly enough to make an ideology which has legs. So I thought Duany was giving LU too much credence for actually having anything there, there.
Then again, Duany may be correct to try to nip attempts to do more suburban plats and big box stores using LU's claim of artistic and ecological legitimacy, even if it is just fashionable nonsense. Clients love the fashionable nonsense of much of startchitecture — now clients may try to do so with Landscape Urbanism. Our society is in love with "the latests." As I blogged (humorously) on the day the iPad was in stores, I said "What next?" as if to suggest an insatiable demand for novelty. So maybe some clients will go for LU because it sounds new.
For a huge number of people — e.g. moi — no one had heard of Landscape Urbanism before Duany made it a big deal and then others, notably Mehaffy, came to write about it. So LU should be extremely grateful to Duany for his attack on LU. As I suggested above, "sometimes an enemy is good to have."
My interim report on LU and subject to change: Intellectual stature slight but superb marketing.
More in another blog post about my own very recent experience where LU protected NU from criticism within the nu tent — or at least that's what I think happened.